“The re-conquest of western Mosul begins.” Or so several headlines in the Arab press have announced. And it’s true that the Iraqi army and its Shia militia allies and a few token soldiers from the US, Turkey, Britain and Kurdish forces have captured some small villages abandoned by Isis near the old Mosul airport. But it is likely to be weeks – perhaps months – before they can claim victory over Isis in Mosul. And even if they are successful, the real blow may fall on a Syrian city hundreds of miles to the west.
For behind the dust clouds and shellfire of the latest Iraqi armoured offensive against Isis in western Mosul – and the usual promises of success from the Iraqi prime minister and assorted American generals – lies the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor, its government defenders and perhaps 90,000 civilians now isolated by Isis into two pockets of resistance in the desert. Supplied by helicopter and led by a ferocious Druze Syrian general, the regime’s forces have held out for five years. But if Isis breaks out from Mosul in the coming weeks, its fighters are likely to speed 340 miles west to the surrounded Syrian city to support their comrades there. Victory in Mosul, in other words, could mean defeat in Deir Ezzor.